A judge overseeing the case against the county’s worst mass killer announced Friday that he intends to launch a third round of evidentiary hearings into a 5-month gap of notes on the Orange County sheriff’s confidential informant program.

Judge Thomas Goethals of Orange County Superior Court. Photo via muckrack.com
After the first round of evidentiary hearings about the use of an informant in the case against Scott Evans Dekraai, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals punished prosecutors by limiting what evidence they could use in the defendant’s trial. Jurors would never hear some incriminating statements he made about his case that were captured from secret recordings.

Goethals at that time found that there was no proof deputies put Dekraai next to the informant, Fernando Perez, intentionally to pump him for information on his case, which would violate Dekraai’s constitutional rights.

When Goethals, however, received new evidence of a system jailers long held to track the placements of inmates that was not disclosed to defense attorneys he ordered another round of hearings.

Evidence from those hearings prompted Goethals to boot the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting Dekraai.

That ruling was upheld by a panel of appellate justices in November, and since the Attorney General’s Office declined to appeal to the state supreme court the ruling stands.

Since then, thousands of pages of documents sought by Dekraai’s attorney, Scott Sanders, have been turned over, some of which the judge said he’s seen before, and there continue to be skirmishes between Sanders and county attorneys who cite a legal privilege to conceal some information.

Goethals ordered about another 5,000 pages of evidence to Sanders Friday, with some redactions.

Citing interviews Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has made in which she denied that her deputies were using informants to “work cases,” Goethals repeatedly criticized the sheriff for apparently being unaware of how long the program has been going on and how far-reaching it has become.

“Those quotes frankly make me wonder,” Goethals said. “I respect elected officials and the sheriff has a tough job… But I have to wonder whether or not she’s aware of the evidence turned over to this court over the years… and I have to conclude she is not aware of the evidence presented to this court because if she were it would be hard to imagine an experienced law enforcement officer making such categorical statements.”

Goethals read aloud from some sheriff’s memos that indicated there were discussions among deputies about moving informants around to capture evidence from suspects that go back as far as 2003. He also read aloud memos that indicated the sheriff would do so to help police in Anaheim, Fullerton and Santa Ana gather evidence in murder cases.

In some cases, confidential informants for Anaheim or other cities would be placed in Orange County Jail under aliases and then placed in a cell next to a suspect, Goethals revealed. The informants in those cases would be wired to record incriminating statements, according to the memos Goethals released Friday.

Goethals was particularly irked at one quote Hutchens made that her department doesn’t “have folks working investigations” with informants. He repeated the quote multiple times as he read aloud memos that contradicted that assertion.

Goethals also noted that some of the deputies cited in the memos were among those he accused of perjury or withholding evidence in his earlier rulings in the Dekraai case. The judge appears flabbergasted that the deputies continue to “have badges and carry guns.”

The judge acknowledged that the deputies would likely “lawyer up” and refuse to testify in the planned upcoming hearings, but he said it was important to get them into court and make them assert their right against self- incrimination in public.

One primary area of interest in the evidentiary hearing will be about a lag in note taking by the sheriff’s special handling unit from April 2011 to September of that year. Sanders has alleged that he thinks the notes have been destroyed.

Fallout from the jailhouse informant program has led to a plea deal with Issac John Palacios, who was given credit for time served in jail on a second- degree murder.

Attempted murder and solicitation of murder charges were dropped against Joseph Martin Govey because of similar issues raised about informants in his case.

One of the more compelling memos Goethals released Friday discussed “wire adjoining cells” containing Leonel Vega and informant Oscar Moriel, who testified in the first round of evidentiary hearings in the Dekraai case.

Vega accepted a plea deal two years ago when prosecutors agreed to have his first-degree murder conviction overturned because an ex-Santa Ana detective got a jailhouse informant to press Vega for information on his case, which is a Sixth Amendment violation because the defendant was represented by an attorney at the time. Vega, 36, who was expected to be freed from prison in a few years at the time of his plea deal, remains in state prison.

Dekraai has pleaded guilty to eight murders and one attempted murder in which the victim survived, so he is not awaiting the penalty phase of his trial as the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, before it was recused, was seeking the death penalty.

The Attorney General’s Office, which is now prosecuting Dekraai, has not decided whether to continue pursuing the death penalty. The alternative punishment is life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Sheriff’s Lt. Mark Stichter, the department’s spokesman, said he could not comment “due to ongoing litigation.” The sheriff has, however, in the past issued statements regarding discovery violation allegations made by Sanders.

— City News Service

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